SHANGHAI -- Inside the classroom, the heads of some of China's largest
companies, many of them still owned and operated by the Communist
government, examined a case study of labor relations culled from the
crucible of capitalism, the United States.
Nordstrom Inc., one of America's largest department store chains, had
enticed its workers to scrap the union that had represented them for
decades and instead work under a new "incentive system." People would be
paid according to how much they sold, with greater reward for greater
profit and greater risk for all.
The professor laid out the details, then turned to his class full of
corporate chieftains. "In this case," he asked, speaking Mandarin, "are
the employees happy with the union? Or do they prefer the new incentive
system?" The classroom resounded with affirmation. "They want the
incentive system! They don't want the union!"
China may still be known officially as a People's Republic, but the recent
class held here in the country's financial capital -- part of an executive
MBA program run jointly by the government and the W.P. Carey School of
Business at Arizona State University -- was a testament to how this
supposed worker's paradise is increasingly defined by capitalist
management techniques and demand for return on investment. The students,
among them several high-ranking Communist Party and government officials,
listened intently as their American professor lectured on the finer points
of squeezing greater productivity from the workforce for less pay.
China's embrace of the free market is hardly new. Two decades have passed
since the country embarked on its reformist course, shedding lifetime
employment guarantees, socialized housing and health care, and other
trappings of its Marxist past. But the executive MBA program, billed as
the first partnership between a U.S. business school and the Chinese
government on Chinese soil, underscored the keen interest of the country's
leaders in completing the wrenching transition by dismantling the old
state sector, shutting the doors on thousands of bankrupt state-owned
companies that still employ tens of millions of people while intensifying
the role of the profit motive in everyday life.
The program, which began this fall, will confer masters of business
administration degrees to executives who attend two dozen weekend sessions
spread over two years. Professors from several American institutions,
including MIT's Sloan School of Management and the Stern School of
Business at New York University, fly here to teach intensive units crammed
into two consecutive weekends. Most of the professors are ethnically
Chinese and fluent in the Mandarin, which is China's national language.
Classes are held at the National Accounting Institute, a futuristic campus
of angular buildings established with the backing of former Chinese
premier Zhu Rongji, one of China's most fervent advocates for what is
known here as the "financial reform and opening process" -- essentially,
the drive to turn China into a market economy.
The old system funneled loans from state banks to state-owned companies
regardless of their often-ugly balance sheets. It safeguarded jobs,
pensions and government-provided housing for millions, but it has left the
financial system in tatters: Private economists estimate that China's
state banks are choked with as much as $500 billion in bad debts.
Zhu and his fellow reformers have encouraged the introduction of Western
management techniques, including modern principles of accounting as a way
to make China's businesses more competitive. They have opened up the
country to foreign capital and encouraged China's companies to sell shares
on stock exchanges in Hong Kong and New York to fund expansions aimed at
transforming them into global competitors. They have pressured China's
banks to stop lending to unprofitable companies and start supporting a new
crop of private firms. They have also urged a cleanup of China's still
wild stock markets, which, despite recent efforts, remain rife with
manipulation and phony accounting.
The accounting institute and the new MBA program with Arizona State are
significant parts of the campaign. Though China today is full of MBA
programs, and thousands of young people flock to universities in the
United States and elsewhere to earn such degrees, the roster of students
at the program speaks of the importance placed on it by China's leaders.
Among the 64 enrolled are presidents and chief executives of some of
China's most important banks, brokerage houses and manufacturers, as well
as powerful officials, including a vice mayor of Shanghai.
In some respects, the workings of the program highlight the often-seamy
ways of Chinese capitalism and the enduring role of personal connections
in doing business here, with many of the country's most successful
"private entrepreneurs" having amassed their wealth by exploiting links
with government officials. No recruitment drive for the program took
place. Admission was essentially restricted to people connected to the
elite accounting institute.
"Most of the students are the president's good friends, or friends of
friends," said Tom Tang, vice director in the marketing department at the
accounting institute, referring to the president of the institute.
The two-year program costs $20,000 -- no small sum in a land where many
households subsist on hundreds of dollars a year -- but many of the
students have had their fees paid by their companies or the government.
Others paid themselves, Tang said, seeing the course as an excellent
opportunity to cultivate ties with government and party officials. On a
recent afternoon, the student parking lot was packed with shiny black Audi
"You can see from the cars what type of student we have here," Tang said,
Still, the atmosphere inside the classroom undercut the sense that those
in attendance might simply be going through the motions to collect a
trophy degree and do some networking. The place hummed with curiosity.
Discussion was lively as students bent over thick stacks of case studies.
Several of those in attendance said they were gaining bits of practical
knowledge they would put to immediate use in some of China's more
Tian Yuan, chairman and chief executive of China International Futures
Co., a brokerage house engaged in futures trading, said he was in the
middle of acquiring another company but had not fully understood how to
calculate its value.
"Now, I'll understand it more clearly," he said.
Zhou Chi, chairman and chief executive of Shanghai Airlines -- a company
with 4,000 employees, a fleet of 28 jets, and expansion plans aimed at
China and beyond -- said the class was helping him evaluate new ways to
As he taught a recent unit in managerial accounting, YuhChang Hwang, a
Taiwan-born professor from Arizona State, said he was favorably impressed
by the quality of his class.
"My concern was they would show up here just to get a degree," he said.
"It turned out to be exactly the opposite: They are very eager to learn."
Still, in China today, even managers who know how to run their businesses
along profitable lines are often constrained by politics and the
imperative to avoid huge surges of unemployment -- perhaps the greatest
threat to social stability. The company heads spoke of having greater and
greater power over wages and contracts, but Hwang said that in his private
conversations many express frustration about their inability to run their
companies as they please. Government officials continue to press banks to
lend to major employers and politically well-connected businesses
regardless of their balance sheets. Layoffs are difficult to impose, even
in hugely bloated money-losing companies.
"The problem is, they have constraints," Hwang said. "They are influenced
by the state. Some students say China is different from the United States.
There are a lot of things we cannot do."
In the classroom, American-style capitalism was offered up as the model
way to do business. After dissecting Nordstrom's managerial triumph, Hwang
projected a series of slides on the wall detailing the success of Nucor
Corp., the U.S. steel manufacturer.
"The organizational structure of a typical division is made up of only
three management layers," one slide declared. "The corporate headquarters
employs only 22 people."
Hwang gazed toward one of his students, Ai Baojun, director of Shanghai
Baosteel Group Corp., a state-owned giant iron and steel conglomerate
whose publicly listed arm alone has more than 15,000 workers. "How many
people are there in Baosteel's headquarters?" Hwang asked, bringing
Nucor has "never had a losing quarter since the mid-1960s," one slide
said. . The next slides sought to explain why: "Decentralized nonunion
management style -- high levels of individual responsibility -- low base
The class talked about ways to limit overtime abuse and time-sheet fraud.
Members talked about the need to standardize hours and punish the tardy.
They talked about how to encourage good work by rewarding the productive.
"For technical professionals, should you give them a bonus or not?" Hwang
asked, moving up the steps of the lecture hall with a microphone fixed to
"You must!" came the response from the seats.
"How should the bonuses be paid?"
"The bonus to these people should be tied to the company's overall
profit," answered a student near the front.
What was perhaps most striking was the lack of questioning about this
mindset, the absence of any discomfort over the singling out of losers
along with the winners. The old socialist-style egalitarianism was clearly
a thing of an increasingly distant past.